The National Register of Citizens, currently being updated for the first time since 1951, was meant to be a list of genuine Indian citizens living in Assam. The exercise, launched in earnest from 2015, started with a determination not to leave out any Indian citizen from the list. Somewhere down the line, the paradigm changed from inclusion to exclusion – the overriding concern became ensuring not a single so-called illegal immigrant made it to the list.

In the process, the exercise now risks leaving some of Assam’s poorest and most vulnerable residents stateless.

This is unpardonable particularly since every step of Assam’s foreigner determination process has been riddled with errors, inconsistencies and accusations of bias. To be listed as citizens, applicants had to prove that they or their ancestors had entered the country before the midnight of March 24, 1971, the eve of the Bangladesh war. But many of the state’s residents have been asked to prove citizenship over and over again as NRC authorities constantly revisit their own previous decisions, tweaking a rule here, second guessing a clearance there.

The latest notification this week is proof enough.

In July 2018, the NRC had published the final draft of the register, rejecting the citizenship claims of 40.7 lakh people among the 3.29 crore applicants. Then on June 26 this year, 1.02 lakh people who were given to believe that they had passed the citizenship test in Assam found that they had not. Their names had featured in the final draft erroneously, the official NRC statement suggests. These were now published in an “additional exclusion list”.

The NRC office cited several criteria for excluding over one lakh people it had cleared as Indian citizens just last year: these were people who had been declared foreigners by tribunals or had cases pending there. Or, they had been marked “D” or “doubtful” voters by the Election Commission, an exercise done to disallow voters whose citizenship was suddenly in doubt from participating in elections.

But last year, when the final draft of the register was published, the office of the NRC coordinator had claimed these groups of people had already been left out. It had even put them down a number for them: 2.48 lakh. Within days, however, he announced that such individuals may have sneaked into the final draft by changing names and addresses or using other kinds of false information. It is not clear why these names were missed in earlier rounds of verification.

Also on the June 26 list were people disqualified during an additional round of verification done after the draft was published last year. Finally, there were those who had been found ineligible while appearing as witnesses during the claims and objections process. Those excluded from the draft last year had to make fresh claims to citizenship and go through hearings conducted by NRC officials. Objections to names included in the list were also heard.

Once again, these seem to be subjective decisions made by field level officers, who are armed with considerable discretionary powers. According to the rules governing the exercise: the “Local Registrar of Citizen Registration may at any time before the final-publication of the National Register of Indian Citizens in the State of Assam cause or direct to cause verification of names of such persons considered necessary”.

And so they have, repeatedly. It is not always evident how NRC officials choose which names to investigate. Since most of those considered “illegal migrants” in Assam are believed to have entered from Bangladesh, it is possible that the linguistic and ethnic identity of applicants was a factor. In earlier stages of verification, officials have admitted that people with names defined as indigenous to Assam were subject to fewer checks.

Another arbitrary process

Those excluded from the citizens register will have another chance to prove their citizenship before the final list is published on July 31. Failing that, they will have to appear before foreigners tribunals, quasi judicial bodies tasked with deciding on matters of disputed nationality, which could send them to detention centres or deport them.

As reported recently, the tribunals are equally arbitrary: the criteria for evaluating the performance of tribunal members is how many people they have declared foreigners.

For thousands in Assam, proving citizenship has become a Sisyphean ordeal, an endless round of offices and documents. For how is one to convince a system that seems geared towards declaring foreigners rather than recognising citizens?